Friday, August 14, 2015

Happy 55th, Marrianne

Loving the Case girls was gift to all of us

August 14, 2015

Today is your 55th birthday, Marrianne, and, on this day I want to publicly share my own testimony of respect and love for you.

I know I don’t need to say I love you. You know that.

Our friends and family know who you are, too, know that they can rely on you to be present when they need you. They know they can count on you to listen, to support, to comfort, to counsel, to give fully and not to demand more than they can give back. None of that requires repeating, either.

Your colleagues, past and present, know you will fully invest in the work that needs to be done, pursue just outcomes, and follow or lead with respect for the abilities that each person brings to the work you do together. These qualities are evident to almost everyone who has had the opportunity to work with you for any appreciable length of time.

As for the few who have decided to move in a different direction, somehow concluded that you are actually in the way of whatever it is they may be trying to accomplish—well, we know from experience that the work that is important to you requires progress, not unanimity. Or, as your plainspoken mother put it when you were seven years old and struggling with a mean teacher, “Honey, some people are just a**holes.”

But, even though so many people understand and appreciate these virtues, I still want to take this opportunity to testify in some detail about one continuing aspect of your life that captures something singularly important about you and about our almost 30 years together as partners and parents and comrades. I do this now because I’m 13 years older than you are and who knows how many chances I’ll get to celebrate you before I wear away and lose my mind in the process? And I do this also because I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this summer when we headed to Fort Wayne for Joyce Case’s wedding to Larry Hout. Though a good number of our friends know something about your history with Joyce and her sisters, the details about your relationship with Nancy, Allie, Leslie, Mary Ann, Kathy and Joyce says something unique about your ability to overcome obstacles to loving and being loved. For these reasons, today seems a good day to testify.

Some 30 years ago, as a member of the West Elkton, O. Friends Meeting you had made an effort to get the meeting more involved in the surrounding community. At the time, the Friends meeting was approached to help a family of girls who weren’t going to school because they didn’t have shoes. As with so many other things in your life, you decided to get personally involved and ended up making a deep commitment to the Case girls.

They were Irish twins, to be sure—six of them between the ages of five and twelve years old. Their father, inclined only to petty theft and other criminal schemes, got himself busted shortly after you met the girls. His parents, sometimes employed at primarily low-wage jobs, had somehow managed to buy themselves a home. It was barely adequate housing, but it was a place where their son could live with his family, while they lived in a trailer out back.

But having put the home up as bail, they lost it and inherited the care of the girls when their son and his wife skipped town. As it happened, though the grandparents were able to keep the girls together, they were poorly equipped to do anything else to help them thrive. And though, from time to time, a social worker took an occasional interest in helping the girls in their growing up, the truth is that from the first, and for decades after, you would prove to be the one adult in their lives who made a constant commitment to them, and who would do her best to give them the love and attention that we all require as we make our way through the world.

While they were still preteens you would pick them up at their house and bring them to yours to spend the weekend with you. You’d take them places they’d never been before, to libraries, museums, music festivals, performances, to Sunday Friends meeting where they could participate in the youth group and learn to interact with a much wider world. And before every school year began, you would take them shopping for a new pair of shoes, for new blouses and jackets. Those weekends continued, sometimes two or even three weekends a month, even after you moved to Dayton, further away from their grandparents’ home.

Not so long after you first met the girls, you and I, both working for the American Friends Service Committee, had also met. By 1988, though I was living in Ann Arbor and you in Dayton, we were deeply involved and I, too, would occasionally visit you, in the process meeting the girls, also.

When the oldest, Nancy and Allie hit adolescence they ran away with young men much older than they were, bouncing from one rural trailer park to the next. The weekend they ran away, I was visiting and tagged along while we searched the backwaters of southwest Ohio, looking for two girls the world had long ago decided were expendable. I remember being astounded that we spent our weekend in a hunt for two runaways I would not otherwise have met, and even more surprised when we found them.

Though the girls were not done rebelling, they came back to Dayton with us quietly enough. After all, you were the one adult in their lives who had ever put aside the priorities of her own life to focus on theirs. You even went and got yourself certified as a foster parent so that you could legally take them into your home and keep them outside the juvenile system.

This would prove not to be enough. Dayton public schools would also prove incapable of reaching them and the streets of Dayton, rougher and infinitely more exciting than the roads of rural Ohio, overwhelmed and seduced Nancy and Allie, and the juvenile system ended up getting them anyhow.

Now is not the time to tell the whole story of the Case girls, nor am I the one to do it. You might be that person, or one of the girls, Allie, perhaps, or Mary Ann. Who can say for sure?

But what I do know is that if not for the commitment you made, I would never have crossed paths with the girls. And I wasn’t equipped to love them without hesitation, either; not the way you did. Nor, for that matter, were they equipped to easily survive what the world does to poor, mostly abandoned children, with only a single adult around to treat them with respect. For Nancy and Allie, the oldest, who suffered longer and more relentlessly from neglect and abandonment, your love, coming as late in their childhoods as it did, had less of an impact than it did on their younger sisters. Still, the girls were each distinctly different personalities and, each with a different set of skills, made their separate ways in the world.

Mary Ann, the most reserved of the sisters, likely learned how to avoid self-destructing from watching how challenging adolescence was for her older sisters. The only one who went to college, she has proved to be a capable, careful and thoroughly committed mother, able to put herself second and insure that her daughter, Kiya, would have a secure childhood so very different from her own.

Joyce, the baby, always seemed to be the most comfortable with the thought that someone could absolutely like her and love her. The stable home and family life she has built for herself, with her daughter, Alisha, husband, Larry, and her stepdaughters and their children, makes it clear that one can start off on a hard road and still make it to a very good place.

Allie, too, bright and always quick to fight, has somehow survived multiple tribulations and gotten to a place as an adult that seems to suit her. Along the way, she has acquired a delightful and capable companion with whom she shares life, work and travel.

Of course, these are not happily ever after stories. Life does not stop throwing mud pies and bricks at us. Thirty years ago one might have guessed that the girls faced a future filled with nothing but sadness, want and tragedy. It has not happened that way for Alice and Leslie and Mary Ann and Joyce, mostly because they found within themselves the strength and endurance to overcome.

But they also found you. They are your daughters, not because of some miracle of birth, but because you volunteered to love them a long time ago and never stopped. In the process, they are mine, too, and let me say now that I love them because you showed me the way to do that.

Have a happy 55th b-day, Marrianne. You flat out deserve it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Separately and together, we must invent joy

I'm trying to complete a post I started on July 25. Though I don't remember my original intention, the post has quickly become a mashup of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and an estranged childhood friend who occasionally takes a swing at me via e-mail or Facebook message. Since the piece, tentatively entitled "Life crushes us all," ranges across issues of class and race and whiteness and the deepest disappointments that life can deliver, it has proven not merely difficult to bring to an integrated, well-reasoned conclusion, but has also become, into the bargain, no damn fun.

Of course, I am quite familiar with all the tactics I routinely rely on to both avoid bringing a writing project to a conclusion, and to excuse each failure to simply sit down and write. I should add, also, that in regard to the twin challenges to write and to keep writing, though familiarity does breed contempt, it does not reduce the effectiveness of those stale, old maneuvers.

In the 1990s, the decade that Marrianne McMullen and I shared major responsibility for publishing the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, I had the happy experience of quite often bringing writing projects, news stories, opinion pieces, et al., to a conclusion. But even then stories begun in a burst of inspiration would sometimes grind to a halt and find themselves forever abandoned. As any writer can testify, such failures are common and ought not even be remarked. After all, the opportunity to succeed once more, or even for the first time, arises with each new day, with every new story.

Sometime, in that period, I came across The Courage to Write, a book by Ralph Keyes, who lived in nearby Antioch, Ohio and was a leading figure in the Antioch Writer's Workshop. I fell instantly in love with the title, with the idea of the courage it takes to write. Surely a whole book on the subject was just the thing, and so I bought a copy; several copies, in fact, and gave some of them to people I knew who also trekked through the unmapped writer's swamp.

As it happened, the book did me no obvious good. Keyes' repeated assurance that no writer is alone in that boundless swamp did not seem to empower me, however hard he worked to document the point. But, in struggling with "Life crushes us all," I have found myself thinking about The Courage to Write. And for about four days running, I'd sit down and read a few pages from the book and find myself able to add 300, 400, even, 500 words after each reading. It was as if I had finally found the secret that works for me, that gets me sitting down, that gets me confidently picking my way through the swamp.

Alas and predictably, the moment I felt that I had discovered the right path for me, it turned out to be a mere trick, dissolving quickly into wisps of smoke. But a day or two ago, I encountered a 2013 Atlantic Magazine post of a video featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates himself talking about writing. In the video, he also uses the phrase "the courage to write."

"I think breakthroughs," Coates says, "come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take and hoping you can grow some new muscles. It's not really that mystical. It's like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be... I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage, almost an act of physical courage..."

Writers, Coates says, need to go back to their work repeatedly. Revise, rewrite and after awhile the idea you had in your head is 50 percent realized, then 60 percent, then 70 percent. It's never fully realized, he says, but you can get closer when you don't let up.

I am certainly writer enough to know that Coates is correct. You don't let up, you go back repeatedly and you revise and refine and every once in a while, after all that pressure focused on putting an idea into words, you achieve real clarity, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole piece to make you proud.

So, I'm going to get back to "Life crushes us all," though it might help if I came up with a new working title that was less of a club with which to whack myself, but not right this instant. In point of fact, the struggle with the piece really is not merely about the courage to write, it is also about clarifying my own thinking in a way that weaves together several related ideas that are nonetheless separate and most often considered independently of each other.

There is whiteness and the struggle, as Coates describes it, of black folks to both live with and within the havoc that white supremacy visits on a daily basis and to live and to forge independent identities beyond the reach of whiteness; there is also the injuries and insults of class as portrayed in Lila, and the special victimization of women who are further silenced and marginalized even in a time of extreme poverty when solidarity ought to be the default state of human relations; and there is also the accumulating losses and humiliations that the world has inflicted on my estranged childhood friend.

All of these are part of the collective experience of life and history in the country we live in together, and are more easily considered separately, but if we are ever to move into a world of justice, deep and shared, we need a more profound understanding of who we are separately and what we each have been through. And since it is impossible to both succinctly and comprehensively explore the variety of oppressions that afflict both our separate and collectives selves, the challenge is, to pervert a phrase from Lord of the Rings, to construct the one metaphor that will rule them all.

I haven't figured out how my draft of "Life crushes us all" gets from where it started to that happier place. But while I've been thrashing about in search for the courage to write, I've tried also to write in my journal, to sneak up on the problem(s) before me, to write around and through it. I might be getting somewhere. Yesterday, in my journal, I got to here:

is for the love, the people, the things
taken from us...

"This, of course, is not enough because one cannot be forever sorrowing. In the face of the standard litany of loss that people endure, we must each rise up again after every lying down. We must proceed, not merely stoically. We must rise and proceed in spite of the beat-downs. Separately or together, we must invent joy."